During the fifty odd years I worked as an international marketing consultant I met dozens of Hollywood icons but none more special than working alongside and striking up a friendship with my childhood idol Betty Grable.
Here is how it happened…
In April 1969, just months after opening my fledgling ad agency, I won a major Scottish retail account and was immediately charged with dreaming up a unique promotion to cover all of the client’s 60 outlets.
My next in command came up with up with the notion of a competition entitled “Stampede!” carrying a first prize of a holiday for two at the world famous Calgary Stampede.
But I reckoned we needed a bobby dazzler of a gimmick to hang it on.
That evening I was thumbing through my local newspaper when I espied a picture of Betty Grable sitting on the steps of the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.
The caption read, “Hollywood star Betty Grable is to appear in a new musical Belle Starr which starts its provincial try-out at the Alhambra Theatre in Glasgow before opening in the West End”.
A light clicked and my reasoning ran, Betty Grable, Belle Starr, Stampede, perfect fit.
Back in the office next morning I telephoned the embassy to enquire after a contact address for Betty (try that today you’ll end up manacled in the Tower of London) and was rewarded with not only the telephone number for Miss Grable’s flat but also a contact for Ginger Rogers who was in London appearing in a stage version of “Mame”.
Two for one; if Betty wouldn’t see me I’d try Ginger.
Nervously I dialled the number and a voice answered, “Rory Calhoun”. That threw me but I ploughed on with a mumbled outline of my purpose in calling.
A chilling silence ensued after which he said, “Sounds interesting, meet up with us twelve noon tomorrow at the Welsh Institute rehearsal rooms in Grays Inn Road”.
It was raining stair rods as I emerged from a taxi and hurried into the Institute where I was met by stunt arranger Bobby Bass who escorted me into the rehearsal rooms and there she was, my childhood idol, high kicking in the middle of a clutch of chorines as raindrops trickled over them from a rickety tin roof.
In a cowboy tassel jacket 6′ 3″ film star Rory Calhoun strode across the floor to introduce himself and Gerry Schaffer, his co-producer. They listened to my pitch and Rory asked, “What’s the tab?” I thought for a moment and replied, “Would three thousand dollars be acceptable?”
Now that is the amount my client was prepared to pay for Betty Grable’s services (photo shoot, personal appearance) but I was pleasantly astounded when Schaffer said, “How do you want to be reimbursed, cash or check?”
Next I called on the touring company’s agent who eyed me suspiciously but perked up when he read Rory’s scribbled note of acceptance. “Well then, you’d best take over advertising and PR for the try-out; twenty thousand dollars is the budget for advertising and there is promotional fee of ten thousand dollars.”
The show opened at the Alhambra Theatre in Glasgow to capacity audiences, got rave reviews, and ran for six weeks instead of the scheduled three. The backers were ecstatic and reckoned they were on a roll.
During the run I recall driving Betty and Rory to visit Loch Lomond one morning after which we lunched at an Italian restaurant where the goggle-eyed waiters fussed over Betty like bees around a honey pot.
Sadly, despite the success of the try-out, Belle Starr folded in the West End after a handful of performances.
Conversely, my agency earned a great deal of money and attracted a rush of new business as a result of the perceived inventiveness of this one-off promotion.
Neil Sedaka sings in his tribute to this famous lady, “I’ll never meet you Betty Grable…”
But I did – and profited from the experience.
The moral of this true story is…
If you are an ambitious young marketer and you dream up an idea so wild and crazy you are convinced it will explode in your face, develop it anyway.
You might just be on a winner…